3 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Disability and GBV - A Double Edged Sword

The sight of a pastor is usually a relief to vulnerable people such as orphans and people with disabilities. There is little or no suspicion that the men-of-the-cloth may at any time prey on those who have invested their trust in them. Twenty five year old wheel-chair bound Chengetai Mutasa* met her fate in September 2012 when Pastor Musindo* raped her.

On the fateful day, Musindo asked Mutasa to escort him to a nearby business centre in the rural areas of Chihota, about 80km from the Harare. On the way, the pastor raped Mutasa.

She reported the matter to her family - who decided on an out of court and traditional settlement of the case. The pastor did not abide by the agreement. Mutasa's family then reported the matter to the police.

The pastor ran away and is still on the run. Investigations are yet to be concluded.

Mutasa's case is similar to what many women with disabilities in Southern Africa are facing. The plight of disabled women who are sexually abused has been exacerbated by lack of support structures and lack of information on how they can protect themselves and their sexual rights.

People with disabilities in many Southern Africa countries are denied justice due to a lack of resources in court such as augmentative and alternative communication for those who cannot comprehend spoken or written language. The theme for the 2012 International Day of the Disabled, which is commemorated on 3 December is, "removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all."

Superintendent Andrew Phiri from the Zimbabwe Republic Police said that there are no statistics on cases of sexual abuse of disabled women. Most cases are not reported.

"We receive a few cases of women with disabilities being sexually abused through our Victim Friendly Unit which caters for mostly vulnerable people among them the disabled. In cases where we are dealing with people with special needs, we provide services as per need for instance hiring interpreters for those with hearing and speech impairments," Phiri said.

He noted that victims might not be aware that they can report cases of abuse. In most cases, perpetrators are known. Care providers often seek to quickly benefit from such situations. Families therefore choose to settle the cases at family or village level to avoid police intervention. Families will only seek police help when the perpetrator has failed to "pay" for the abuse.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2011 report, over a billion people (15%) of the world's population has a form of a disability. It further highlights that rates of disability are increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions among other causes.

People with disabilities are at high risk of abuse due to stigma, discrimination as well as lack of social support for those who care for them. People with communication impairment are at greater risk as they may not be able to disclose abusive experiences.

The Scoping study: Disability Issues in Zimbabwe 2007 report states that the sexuality of people with disabilities has been poorly understood and often not recognised or discussed by society and family members. Women with disabilities are therefore not commonly regarded as being at risk of or vulnerable to HIV.

However, the study further noted that extreme poverty and social sanctions against marrying a disabled person mean they are more likely to become involved in unstable relationships than able-bodied people.

The Zimbabwe Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for women, girls, gender equality and HIV (ZAACA), 2011-2015 report reported increased vulnerability of disabled women to sexual abuse.

In April 2012 in South Africa, four out of seven teenagers were arrested for the rape of a 17 year old mentally challenged girl and released on R500 bail each. The intellectually disabled Dobsonville girls' ordeal came to light after a video of the crime went viral.

Article nine of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol proposes that States parties should adopt legislation and related measures to protect persons with disabilities, taking into account their particular vulnerabilities.

Article 20 also stipulates that State parties must establish special counselling services, legal and police units to provide dedicated and sensitive services to survivors.

Zimbabwe Women with Disabilities in Development (ZWIDE) Director Anne Malinga said they are working towards zero tolerance on sexual abuse and advised women with disabilities to know their rights and report the incidences to the police.

*Not their real names.

Sally Nyakanyanga is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

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